As we engage the questions before us we should recognize that the sacraments must be set in the larger context of ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church). Our fencing inquiry is not a simple question that can consider the sacrament in the abstract. Rather it is a complex matter involving several issues of wider biblical, theological, and practical significance.
When I was pastoring and we celebrated the Lord’s Supper I made the following formal statement, which along with the minister’s personal call for participants to examine themselves, represented our method of fencing the Lord’s Table in the exercise of communion:
“We invite to the Lord’s Supper all who are believers in Christ, who are baptized members in good standing of an evangelical church, and who have been formally approved by church officers of an evangelical church to take communion.”
This formal fencing statement basically consists of a four-fold requirement. It requires that anyone who partaking of the Lord’s Supper must be:
- a believer in Christ
- baptized in his name
- a member in good standing of an evangelical church
- formally admitted to the Lord’s Table by ordained church officers of an evangelical church.
Our fencing inquiry
I formulated this statement based on the Scriptures as our ultimate authority and the Westminster Standards as our secondary authority. Though other issues will necessarily be drawn into our study, the two foundational questions that this article will consider are:
- Why should we fence the Lord’s Table?
- How shall we fence the Lord’s Table?
As we engage the questions before us we should recognize that the sacraments must be set in the larger context of ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church). Our fencing inquiry is not a simple question that can consider the sacrament in the abstract. Rather it is a complex matter involving several issues of wider biblical, theological, and practical significance. Our study will therefore involve the following issues:
- The visible-invisible church distinction.
- The necessity, legitimacy, function, and power of church officers.
- The legitimacy of church discipline.
- The importance of and obligation to formal church membership.
- The nature of the sacrament.
- The relationship of the new covenant sacrament to those of the old covenant.
- The spiritual danger of abusing the sacrament.
- The inescapable necessity of fencing.
Our historical setting
Self-consciously Presbyterian churches recognize that our theological heritage holds a high view of ecclesiastical government. Indeed, the word “presbyterian” derives from the Greek word presbuteros, which is generally translation “elder” in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 14:23; 15:4; 1 Tim 5:17, 19). Thus, Presbyterians have adopted a name that emphasizes representative church government through elder rule.
Furthermore, our historic Presbyterian theology is confessional, providing a careful, formal, public declaration of faith that, according to its first chapter (WCF 1), is self-consciously rooted in Scripture. Thus, historically Presbyterians have adopted the Westminster Standards as their foundational theological formulation.
In light of our present fencing inquiry we recognize that our Westminster Confession of Faith observes that persons must be “admitted to” the Lord’s Table, i.e., they do not have an individual right to partake of it without any external oversight:
“ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with [Christ], so are they unworthy of the Lord’s table; and cannot, without great sin against Christ, while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries, or be admitted thereunto” (WCF 29:8).
This act of admitting is accomplished by duly authorized officers of “particular churches” (WCF 25:4) to whom have been given “the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God” (WCF 25:3).Thus, our Confession further states that:
To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed; by virtue whereof, they have power, respectively, to retain, and remit sins; to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word, and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the Gospel; and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require.
Elsewhere we learn that Presbyterian churches should only give the bread and wine “to the communicants” (WCF 29:3).
Our current concern
I will now provide a brief biblical defense of our Presbyterian method of fencing the Lord’s Table, which we believe to be warranted by Scripture. I will build the case for this four-fold fencing statement by laying down one brick at a time.
General argument for fencing
As we engage our inquiry into the biblical warrant for fencing the Table, we must begin with an irrefutable observation: the New Testament provides strong evidence that some form of fencing is required in inviting people to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Once this is recognized we have laid the essential, basic, foundational cornerstone for fencing as a general truth in Scripture. This then will open the more specific evidence for our particular form of fencing. We would argue on the basis of the following evidence that “open communion” without any fencing whatsoever is not only unbiblical but anti-biblical and dangerous.
First, the issue of faith in Christ. The most basic element in fencing the Table is the call for faith in Christ. Some liberal confessions allow access to the Lord’s Supper to any interested inquirer regardless of his or her current profession.1 Most evangelicals, however, disagree, noting that the Lord’s Supper is only for believers. After all, Paul expressly declares: “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16). How can unbelievers “share” in the blood and body of Christ — while in unbelief and therefore not “in Christ”? Peter denounces Simon the Sorcerer for his false (Acts 8:13) profession of faith: “You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God” (Acts 8:21). The same declaration would surely be true of someone who has no profession of faith in Christ whatsoever.
What is more, consider the implications of Paul’s command that “you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler — not even to eat with such a one” (1 Cor 5:11). If the Apostle forbids mundane fellowship-eating with rebellious claimants to Christ (one who is a “so-called brother,” i.e., one who professes to be a brother), surely he would forbid eating the Lord’s Supper with them in the context of worship (we will see later that he does, when we highlight 1 Cor 11:27–29). And if he forbids eating with such professing Christians, surely he would forbid eating the Lord’s Supper by non-Christians who do not even profess Christ.
Thus, since the Lord’s Supper may be given only to those who profess faith in Christ, this in and of itself becomes a fencing issue. Such a recognition endorses the general principle of fencing. So then, for most Bible-believing Christians fencing of some kind is inescapable. And now in light of this, the question arises: How shall unbelievers know they should not partake if the minister does not inform them? How shall they refrain from partaking if some sort of fencing statement is not made?
In addition, a dangerous conclusion of the theology that would dismiss fencing in general quickly arises: On the non-fencing principle if a minister should not make a basic fencing statement before the Lord’s Supper, how shall church officers require a profession of faith from anyone before they are allowed to join the church from outside its boundaries? Open communion with its denial of fencing the Table implies open membership. That is, does not anti-fencing imply that even allowing church officers to examine potential church members is illegitimate, for this puts someone (a church officer) between Christ and the individual?
Second, the issue of water baptism. Virtually all evangelical Christians agree that baptism is the initiatory sacrament of the visible church in the new covenant. That is, baptism is the sacrament which introduces a person into the visible church as an historical entity. The Lord’s Supper is not an initiatory sacrament, but one that necessarily follows after baptism.
We see that baptism is the initiatory sacrament in the missionary context of the Apostolic church. When people are converted to Christ we read of their immediately being accepted for baptism, never of their first partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Baptism represents their entry into the kingdom of God as we see from the following biblical evidence:
- Christ gives his church the Great Commission in such a way as to demand the initiatory nature of baptism: “Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’” (Matt 28:18–20)
- Peter preaches the gospel to the Jews in Jerusalem, offering them entry into the visible church through baptism: “‘Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’ . . . . So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls. . . . And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:38, 41, 47)
- Of Phillip’s evangelistic encounter with the Samaritans we read of the converts’ reception through baptism: “But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike.” (Acts 8:12)
- Peter reports of his evangelistic encounter with the Gentile Cornelius in similar terms: “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, ‘Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?’” (Acts 10:44–47)
- Paul’s evangelistic encounter with Lydia follows the same pattern: “And a certain woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household had been baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay.’” (Acts 16:14–15)
- Paul’s evangelism among the people at Corinth continues the practice: “And Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized.” (Acts 18:8)
- Paul’s testimony of his conversion shows he was converted and then immediately baptized: “‘And now why do you delay? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.’” (Acts 22:16)
- Paul’s theology sacramentally associates baptism with entering into Christ: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (Gal 3:27)
Thus, we see from the New Testament record itself that baptism is frequently administered in the very context of evangelistic encounters that result in conversion. We do not have a direct statement in Scripture that declares: “You must first be baptized and only then may you partake of the Lord’s Supper.” But neither do we have a direct statement in Scripture commanding that we baptize our children. Nor do we have a direct statement that informs us we are no longer to worship on Saturday (even though Saturday worship is the Fourth Commandment). Neither do we have a direct statement declaring “God is a Trinity.” Yet we hold these and many other such doctrines to be biblically-based truths. So then, from the recurring evidence just listed we may logically surmise that all who partake of the Lord’s Supper must be baptized first, just as we require in this fencing statement.
As our Confession says and as all evangelicals believe: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (WCF 1:6). So then “by good and necessary consequence” we see another basic element for fencing the Table in addition to a profession of faith in Christ: all partakers must be baptized before they may share in the Lord’s Table. This is historically why all evangelical churches have required baptism as a pre-requisite for taking Communion.
Third, the issue of apostolic example. We must note that Paul specifically endorses fencing the Table in 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 10:21 he dogmatically declares to the Corinthians: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.” We must also realize that the Corinthians profess faith in Christ, for Paul calls their church “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Cor 1:2a). Indeed, it is made up of “brethren” (1 Cor 1:10, 26; 2:1; 3:1; 4:6; 7:24; 10:1; 12:1; 14:6; 16:15) whom Paul calls “my brethren (1 Cor 1:11; 11:33; 14:39). Yet he warns them that they may not partake of the Lord’s Supper if they continue partaking of sacrificial meals offered to idols. They must “flee idolatry” (1 Cor 10:14) because idol sacrifices involve them in demon worship (1 Cor 10:20). To partake of idol sacrifices provokes the Lord to jealousy (1 Cor 10:22).
In fact, as noted above Paul forbids them to even “associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater . . . not even to eat with such a one” (1 Cor 5:11). Surely this prohibits the idol-worshiping, professing Christian (“so-called brother”) from sharing the Lord’s Supper in the context of worship.
What is more, Paul expressly warns: “therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Cor 11:27–28). At the very minimum this is a fencing statement that warns the rebellious Christian to forgo the Lord’s Supper. We will have more to say about this later, but for now we can see once again that the Bible generally endorses fencing the Table.
Conclusion. So then, the New Testament does in fact establish the practice of fencing the Lord’s Table. It clearly demands that the administration of the supper must be given only to those who are professing Christians, who are baptized in Christ’s name, and who have examined themselves to see if they are spiritually ready to partake. Thus, the first two elements in our fencing statement (and our informal ministerial declaration) have been confirmed from Scripture.
Having established the biblical warrant for a basic fencing of the table, and having established the first two points in the formal statement, I will now focus on issues impacting the last two fencing statements. I will begin by considering:
Sacramental Administration and Church Government
Several questions arise as we consider this issue:
- To whom was the Lord’s Supper originally given?
- In what context may it be offered?
- Who may administer it?
Answering these inter-related questions will take us a long way toward demonstrating the third and fourth elements in our fencing statement. Those elements require that a participant be a member in good standing (i.e., not under discipline) of an evangelical church and that they must have been formally admitted to the Lord’s Table by ordained church officers from an evangelical church (they may not be baptized infants who have not given a credible profession of faith, nor may baptized children approach the Table solely on their own decision without being formally approved by church officers). Let us see how this is so.
First, the Lord’s Supper was given to the visible church. To demonstrate this we must begin by considering the original establishment of the Supper.
Jesus instituted the Supper as a tangible, visible sign of his new covenant. It is not a wholly spiritual transaction, such as exercising faith in him which incorporates one into the invisible church. Rather the Supper involves both spiritual and physical aspects, internal disposition and external operations: it employs visible, material elements (the bread and the cup) and requires external, physical actions (taking, eating, drinking). Note the following in this regard, focusing particularly on the italicized statements:
And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He said, “Take this and share it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes.” When He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood” (Luke 22:17–20).
Paul reiterates this as he records Christ’s institution of the Supper and relates it to the Corinthian church:
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way He took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me” (1 Cor 11:23–25).
Without these visible elements and external actions there is no Lord’s Supper. These are essential to the sacrament as a sacrament which is a visible sign of the new covenant designed to “put a visible difference between those that belong unto the Church and the rest of the world” (WCF 27:1). Such visible signs and external actions demonstrate that it was designed for the visible church, the historical church formally and publically organized as a body.
Second, the Lord’s Supper operates within the gathered visible church. Paul speaks of the Lord’s Supper in the context of its public worship in the corporate gathering of the visible church. No verse in Scripture ever hints at its private administration by individuals or in a family context. It is always administered under church authority.
Paul provides the fullest treatment of the Lord’s Supper in Scripture in 1 Corinthians 10–11. There we discover evidence of the corporate setting and formal administration of the sacrament. In fact, as Paul discusses the Supper he even speaks of it in the context of and as a function of the church’s formal gathering together — thereby demonstrating the corporate nature of the visible church:
“Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17)
“you come together” (1 Cor 11:17)
“when you come together as a church” (1 Cor 11:18)
“when you meet together” (1 Cor 11:20)
“when you come together to eat” (1 Cor 11:33).
One of the preceding references even rebukes the Corinthians for abusing the Lord’s Supper in their particular church setting: “when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor 11:20). Of course, he is not saying they are not physically eating the Lord’s Supper, for they most clearly are (1Cor 11:23–26). In fact, their use (abuse!) of the Supper is the main issue which Paul confronts here. He is denouncing their attitude during its administration and their manner of partaking it: they are not approaching it reverentially as the Lord’s Supper. He complains: “What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you” (1 Cor 11:22).
Third, the Lord’s supper was entrusted to the officers of the visible church. The physical elements (the bread and the cup) and the external manner (the sacramental actions) were appointed by Christ and immediately entrusted to the foundational officers of his church, the apostles: “and when the hour had come He reclined at the table, and the apostles with Him” (Luke 22:14). Paul teaches that the church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles” (Eph 2:20a; cp. Rev 21:14). True, the apostolic foundation of the church obviously involves both the invisible and visible dimensions of the new covenant phase of the church. But this sacrament is so constituted as necessarily linking it to the visible church because of the external, visible realities of the tangible elements and the sacramental actions. No one may arrogantly commune spiritually with Christ or sinfully enter into the invisible church, but they certainly can and often do arrogantly partake physical communion within the visible church.
In this regard we must observe that the Lord did not indiscriminately give the Lord’s Supper to individuals or even to collected masses of individuals — which we might expect if it were an individual, personal matter for people’s own performance. For instance, he did not institute it at the feeding of the 5000 and then instruct them: “Go thou and do likewise.” This is all the more noteworthy in that after feeding the 5000 (John 6:1–14) he stated a spiritual truth that reminds us of the spiritual implications of the Supper: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:54).
Nowhere do we read that Jesus ever instructed random followers: “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, served you my Supper, you also ought to serve it to one another. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you” (cf. John 13:14–15). Rather, he entrusted the Lord’s Supper to the foundational officers of his church as under their authoritative oversight.
Thus, the Lord’s Supper differs greatly from a spiritual feeding upon. Any person may individually feed upon Christ spiritually in his heart at any time thereby providing him entry into the invisible church. We see this in Jesus’ general, public statement in John 6:54: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” But the Lord’s Supper involves physical actions in a corporate context, was originally instituted with the first officers of the church, and is therefore a function of the visible church which is entrusted to its officers.
Fourth, the Lord’s Supper exercises the highest function of “the keys of the kingdom.” This is an important issue that will directly demonstrate and theologically explain our third (good-standing membership) and fourth (formal admission) fencing elements. Let us see how this is so.
In Matthew 16 Jesus spoke to Peter and through him to the twelve apostles (Matt 10:1–2) who were gathered before him (Matt 16:13, 20, 21). He stated: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:19). Here the Lord highlighted the church’s ultimate power over its members: its formal, judicial, spiritual power to open or to shut the kingdom of God to men, that is, to include or exclude persons from the church. The keys are not given indiscriminately to individual Christians based on their faith in Christ; they are given to its original officers as officers.
We must note that the power of wielding the keys of the kingdom is only spiritual; spiritual authority is the only power the church possesses. The church has not been granted the right to administer punishments of a corporal (e.g., flogging), capital (i.e., execution), or pecuniary (i.e., fines) nature. God has ordained three major institutions in the world, with differing ultimate powers: God’s Law gives to the civil magistrate the “sword” to enforce the laws of the state (Rom 13:4) and to the home the “rod” to enforce the laws of the family (Prov 13:24). But the church officers are given the spiritual “keys” to enforce the laws of the church (Matt 16:19).
The Lord illustrates the use of the keys in his famous statement on church discipline:
And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer. Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matt 18:15–18; cp. Tit 3:10).2
This spiritual process of disciplinary interaction begins informally and privately, and does not necessarily result in formal, public church discipline. But its final stage, its highest action — involving no pecuniary fine, no physical punishment, no capital sanction — is engaged by and only by “the church.” This is not an action of the home or the state — nor even of the individual.
By the very nature of the case “the church” in this context must mean the local manifestation of the visible church — for how shall discipline be brought before the universal visible church? And more particularly “the church” must mean the local church’s governmental authorities, the church functioning through its officers. Elsewhere in Scripture the church officers are the ones entrusted with the power of formal church discipline: “Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account” (Heb 13:17). They are the ones who are to “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Pet 5:2). The elders/overseers are the ones who are called to manage the church of God much like a father manages his own household (1 Tim 3:1, 6; cp. Tit 1:7–9). Church elders are called “overseers” because of this sort of oversight function, as we see in Acts 20 where Paul calls together the “elders of the church” (Acts 20:17) then refers to them as “overseers” (Acts 20:28).
Individuals and non-church bodies (e.g., local Bible study groups, Christian schools, Christian societies, etc.) do not hold the keys of the kingdom. The keys represent official governmental powers reserved solely for the church operating under Christ as the visible manifestation of the kingdom of God and through its ordained officers as an exercise of Christ’s kingdom-authority. The Table in the Lord’s Supper is “the table of the Lord” (1 Cor 10:21) just as the kingdom of heaven is his. And Christ organizes his kingdom-church as a government under duly gifted, called, approved, elected, ordained, and installed officers. Not just anyone claiming the name of Christ may exercise this highest power of the church in accepting and excluding persons from the church and the Supper — nor even for themselves, otherwise church government would be superfluous.
Paul rebukes the Corinthian church for failing to exercise the keys of the kingdom in removing an unrepentant sinner from their midst. As one of the highest officers of the church possessing a plenary power (i.e., a power beyond the local church body), the Apostle Paul (1 Cor 1:1; 9:1) writes:
In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor 5:4–5).
Here Paul is speaking of a formal, judicial action against the unrepentant church member: it is done “in the name [i.e., under the authority] of our Lord Jesus,” by the “assembled” (formally gathered) body of Christ which exercises “the power of our Lord Jesus” (cp. Matt 18:18–20). This action removes the unrepentant sinner from membership in the church which places him outside the kingdom of Christ and into the kingdom of Satan (“deliver such a one to Satan,” 1 Cor 5:5a), which is the only other spiritual sphere (cf. Acts 26:18; Col 1:13), in that people are either saved or not, in the kingdom or not.
Admittedly Paul does not expressly mention elders in 1 Corinthians 5. In fact, he nowhere mentions “elder” or “overseer” anywhere within the whole Corinthian corpus — nor do we see elders mentioned in Acts 18 where we read about his founding the Corinthian church. Nevertheless, we may by good and necessary consequence deduce that the church had elders who were to function as agents of discipline and who were being directed here to excommunicate this sinner. Consider the following:
(1) Paul established the church at Corinth and stayed among them for eighteen months (Acts 18:11). It is his stated practice always to ordain elders for the churches he established (Acts 14:23; Tit 1:5). After eighteen months at Corinth, he surely would have installed elders there.
(2) In the historical record of his church work at Ephesus, we see him calling the elders at Ephesus to “oversee” the work (Acts 20:17, 28) and to protect the church from spiritual harm (Acts 20:29–32). He surely would have the same concern and expect that same pattern of spiritual oversight and action at Corinth. After all, he lovingly informs them: “For if you were to have countless tutors in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel” (1 Cor 4:15).
(3) Here at Corinth the church’s officers obviously failed to act as “leaders” who “watch over . . . souls” (Heb 13:17). They failed to “shepherd the flock of God” by “exercising oversight” (1 Pet 4:2). We see this in his complaint: “you have become arrogant, and have not mourned instead, in order that the one who had done this deed might be removed from your midst” (1 Cor 5:2).
(4) For the good of the church, therefore, Paul states that he himself has “decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh” (1 Cor 5:5a). He expects the church officers to follow his directive, for he clearly commands them: “clean out [Gk.: ekkatharate, aorist active imperative] the old leaven” (1 Cor 5:7a) and “remove [Gk.: exarate, aorist active imperative] the wicked man from among yourselves” (1 Cor 5: 13b). He urges this action for the good of the church: otherwise “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor 5:6b). He had instructed the church in a previous letter “not to associate with immoral people” (1 Cor 5:9), but they did not obey. Now they must.
So then, Paul’s recommended formal action would close the Lord’s Table to a member of the church because that one is no longer deemed a believer but only a “so-called brother” (Gk.: adelphos onomazonmenos, “one called a brother,” 1 Cor 5:11). This is important for our consideration: this person is being removed even though he may personally claim to be a believer (again: note that Paul calls him a “so-called brother”) and even though he continues coming to the church. This parallels those in John 8:30–31 who claimed to be believers: “As He spoke these things, many came to believe in Him. Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed Him.” The first reading of John’s text seems to present these persons as true believers. Yet we learn from John 8:37, 42, 44 that they were not true believers, despite their apparent confession of faith (see also the situation in John 2:23–25). Indeed, they desired even to kill Jesus (John 8:40).
Furthermore, we must note that Paul even declares that he himself cannot exercise this church power upon “those who are outside” for only “God judges” them (1 Cor 5:13a). Thus, his authority is confined to the sphere of the church. The Corinthians therefore must “remove the wicked man from among yourselves” (1 Cor 5:13b). This is a power of the church over its members; it is not a plenary power of individuals or even the church itself over those outside of its bonds. Church authority has no bearing on outsiders; outsiders are beyond the sphere of the church’s governmental authority.
Fifth, the church’s disciplinary power is exercised only through the church’s officers. As Presbyterians we believe that Christ establishes and organizes his church as a kingdom. We also hold that as an orderly kingdom the church has duly-appointed officers to exercise its governmental powers in order to maintain its integrity. The right to exercise church discipline devolves upon those who are properly gifted and formally ordained (Acts 14:23; 1 Tim 4:14; 5:22; 2 Tim 1:6) to exercise those gifts. Paul teaches that some have the requisite gift to lead, not all (Rom 12:8c). He teaches that some Christians have gifts to administer the church, not all (1 Cor 12;28–30). Some are appointed as overseers (elders) in the church, not all (1Tim 3:1–7; Tit 1:5). Therefore, the exercise of the church’s kingdom power is entrusted to and exercised only by some, not all. That is, the church’s power is granted to those who are properly gifted and appointed, the church’s elders. Disciplinary power is not exercised by the congregation at large, for this would involve young communicant children who not have the requisite biblical knowledge and spiritual maturity to faithfully engage disciplinary process.
The highest officers of the church were the foundational apostles (Matt 16:17–19; Eph 2:20). The apostles were also “elders” of the church, for the apostleship embodied all the offices, functions, and powers of the church in their unique, foundational, inspired calling and ministry. For instance, the Apostle Peter writes: “I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder” (1 Pet 5:1). So then, by establishing in Scripture the distinctives and prerequisites of formal church office (1 Tim 3:1–7; Tit 1:5–9), by ordaining elders in first-century local churches (Acts 14:23; Tit 1:5), by including them in joint decisions with the apostles themselves (Acts 15:6, 22–23; 16:4), and by endorsing (Acts 11:30; 20:17, 28, 32, 36; 1 Tim 5:17; Jms 5:14; 1 Pet 5:1) and defending governing authority under elders (1 Tim 5:19; Heb 13:17), the apostles pass on those particular non-inspired official powers of church office to its elders in order to maintain church government in the on-going church beyond the apostolic era.
Thus, the formal, governmental authority which Christ gave to his unique, first-century apostles is passed on by them through the laying-on-of-hands (Acts 14:23; 1 Tim 4:14; 5:22; 2 Tim 1:6; Tit 1:5). Through this means the ongoing elders of the living church have authority vested in them ultimately from Christ and through his apostles for continuing the power of discipline. Those entrusted with the keys to govern Christ’s church must have authority over access to the Lord’s Supper, and they alone. Otherwise church officers have little power and the Lord’s Supper cannot be fenced in any way, because under such conditions access to it is left to anyone who desires to partake. In such a case, the elders are denied their ultimate, specifically-delegated power and are effectively stripped of their formal authority. Our Confession expresses the matter well, noting that:
Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ and His benefits; and to confirm our interest in Him: as also, to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the church and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to His Word” (WCF 27:1).
The Lord’s Supper involves external actions that publically declare and exhibit our sharing in Christ, our belonging unto his church which is his body: “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16). This is why Paul took the formal, judicial action in removing the unrepentant sinner from the church at Corinth: to place him outside the church. As noted previously, the sinner was removed from their midst (1 Cor 5:2, 7, 13b) and placed outside the church in Satan’s realm (1 Cor 5:5). This action was designed visibly to break fellowship with the unrepentant (1 Cor 5:9, 11) thereby drawing a line between those in the church and those outside. The church has nothing formally to do with those on the outside for it has no authority over them (1 Cor 5:12–13).
Furthermore, Paul rebukes the Corinthian church about their partaking the Lord’s Supper without proper discernment, calling upon them to properly exercise such discernment (1 Cor 11:28–32). He notes that such partaking despises the church of God as a corporate entity (1 Cor 11:22). Thus, the Corinthians must recognize the appropriate corporate discipline of the church as urged by Paul. To hear and obey Paul on this matter encourages the good order of the church as a corporate entity.
In the second installment of this article I will deal with the question of sacramental partaking based on the foundations laid in this article. I will also focus on the necessity of fencing the table that results from all this study. We must remember that we are talking about the Lord’s Supper. Partaking of it is no trivial matter.
Dr. Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. is a minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Assembly (RPCGA) and lives in Greer, S. C.
1 Some prominent theologians in the past have even considered the Lord’s Supper to be a converting ordinance and therefore open to all people as an evangelistic tool. This view has even been held by some Reformed theologians. For instance, Jonathan Edwards’ grandfather, Solomon Stoddard (1643–1728). We see this practice also in John Wesley (1703–91). Many Nazarenes and others do so even today. These views are today so far afield from our recent ecclesiastical history, sacramental theology, and contemporary practice that we will not consider them as options.
2 William Horbury notes in his article “Extirpation and Excommunication” (VT 35:1 , pp. 15) that the “New Testament mentions exclusion not only from the church, but also from the synagogue (Luke vi 22,; John ix 22, xii 42, xvi 2). Moreover, as early as 1 Cor. v, the procedure of Christians excommunication is assumed without discussion; and it is likely, therefore, that existing synagogue custom is presupposed.”